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Loving Service–The Way to Self-Realization

Swami says that selfless service is the greatest sadhana for self-realization as it helps to get rid of our ego and purify the heart. That is why Swami introduced service as an important aspect of the organization. He led by example, starting outstanding humanitarian services in education, health, drinking water, and housing, among many others, to benefit millions worldwide.

He exemplified His own statement, “The best way to love God is to love all and serve all,” by serving people from His childhood till He left the mortal coil. He continues to guide devotees around the world in doing loving, selfless service.

Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “If you cannot practice remembering Me with devotion, then just try to work for Me. Thus, performing devoted service to Me, you shall achieve the ultimate state of liberation.” (Bhagavad Gita 12:10)

Both Chapter 3 (Karma Yoga) and Chapter 5 (Karma Sanyasa Yoga) of Bhagavad Gita deal with Nishkama Karma (selfless action) as the means to attain Self-realization. But as Swami and Krishna both emphasize, even ordinary or mundane activities become Nishkama Karma, i.e., transform from ‘karma’ (work) into ‘yoga’ (worship), when we:

  1. Do every task with one-pointed attention.
  2. Perfect every action with attention to minute details.
  3. Dedicate all actions to God.
  4. Maintain equanimity to accept success or failure, profit or loss, praise or blame with fortitude and joy.

This aspect is also emphasized in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells the disciples, “When you feed the hungry, give shelter to the needy, help the sick or visit the people in prisons, you serve me. When you serve the least of your brethren, you serve me.” Swami also says the same thing, as, “Manava Seva is Madhava Seva’’ or “Service to Man is Service to God.” Similarly, Swami says, “Grama Seva is Rama Seva’’ or “Service to villages is Service to God.”

In Islam, one of the five pillars is giving charity to the poor to please God. According to the Jewish faith, it is said in the Torah, Leviticus 19:34, that it is important to serve the neighbor and everyone as one’s own self. By personal example and precept, Lord Buddha has shown that compassion and kindness to the less fortunate is one of the best paths to Nirvana (enlightenment). All these examples by the great masters reflect what Lord Krishna says, “I regard them to be perfect yogis who see the true equality of all living beings and respond to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were their own.” (Bhagavad Gita, 6:32).

Service is Love in Action

Professor Kasturi relates an incident wherein he was walking in the village of Puttaparthi. He saw a landlord who had been reduced to poverty and was eating peanuts to live. He was moved, and the next time he got an opportunity, he told Swami about the man’s pitiful state. He thought Swami would be touched by his soft heart that had melted at the man’s difficulty. Instead, Swami admonished him, saying, “Couldn’t you give the man some jaggery (unrefined sugar)? At least it would have sweetened his meal and tasted better.”

Hands that help are holier than lips that pray. Lip service is not love. It should not be ‘inaction in love’ but ‘love in action.’ Love in action is service! We have heard Swami say, “Wherever my glory is sung, I install Myself.” In later years, Swami would also say, “Wherever My work is done, I install Myself!”.

Chanting His Name is Good; Doing His Work is Better

In His divine discourse of February 8, 1990, Swami narrates an episode from the Ramayana. Vibhishana, the brother of Ravana and a noble devotee of Rama, always chanted the name of Lord Rama. When Hanuman leapt across the ocean and entered Lanka in search of Mother Sita, he could hear the name of the Lord emanating from a house. That was Vibhishana’s home, which Hanuman visited. After a heartfelt conversation, Vibhishana confessed his envy of Hanuman, saying, “Hanuman! Although you are a mere monkey, you have been the recipient of the Lord’s grace. Although I have been ceaselessly engaged in the contemplation of Rama, why have I not secured His grace?” Hanuman replied, “Vibhishana! Indeed, you are ceaselessly chanting the name of Rama. But to what extent are you engaged in the service of Rama? You cannot receive Rama’s grace by merely contemplating the name of Rama. When your brother Ravana abducted and imprisoned Sita Devi, what help did you give her? Did you do anything to alleviate Rama’s distress, even partially?”

It is not enough if we chant God’s name. We must also do God’s work to be near Him and gain His grace. In fact, when we do such work, God will come near us in many ways. Services were rendered to homeless people during the SSSIO Pre-world Conference in Hong Kong in 2015. Just as one of the volunteers wondered whether Swami had received the service, a car bearing the registration plate ‘SIVOHAM’ passed by as if it was a sign from Swami! Similarly, during a food distribution service in St Petersburg, Russia, a volunteer discovered a potato in the shape of a heart–a symbol of love, signaling God’s omnipresence!

His Life is His Message

In Viveka Chudamani, the greatest treatise on non-dual philosophy (Advaita), Adi Sankaracharya says there are three great blessings one can receive only by God’s grace. The first is human birth. The second is to have yearning for God. The third is coming in contact with a great, enlightened master. We are most blessed and fortunate to have come in contact with the supreme Lord Himself, the Avatar of the age, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. However, there is a fourth greatest blessing. It is a tremendous and unique fortune to be able to do His work! The opportunity to serve the Lord comes rarely; when we get it, we should grab it with both hands. In fact, by His actions, God always demonstrates how one should serve.

During the Summer Course in 1973, Swami narrates the example of Lord Krishna. When the Rajasuya Yagna (sacrificial offering and worship) was performed, Krishna asked Dharmaraja (emperor and eldest brother of Pandavas) to give Him some work. Dharmaraja turned to Krishna and said no work was appropriate for His stature. However, if Krishna Himself identified suitable work, it would undoubtedly be allotted to Him. Krishna said that He would be thrilled to clear the leaf plates used for eating after the attendees of the Yagna finished their meal!

During the Last Supper, we see Lord Jesus lovingly washing His disciples’ feet, with humility. Similarly, when the Akhanda Bhajans were held in the 1950s in Bangalore, Swami would personally ensure that the devotees’ footwear was appropriately arranged and kept safe. Even in later years, Swami would meticulously examine all the arrangements made for the devotees for all events. He is the perfect host. When He hosts a dinner, He makes sure the choices of food for His devotees are carefully handled. When He invites anyone, He makes the arrangements lovingly, with meticulous attention to detail, from their arrival at the airport to their departure, including their accommodation, food, travel, and other needs. Indeed, His life is His message, and He teaches us how to serve.

It is noteworthy that Swami did not say, “Love some and serve some.” Love and service are meant for all, including plants and animals.

The Desire to Serve

It is essential to have the desire to serve. That is what qualifies us to serve. In His discourse of February 1, 1977, Swami emphasizes this quality, taking the example of Hanuman, an exemplary devotee and servant of the Lord.. After the Coronation celebrations, Sita, Rama, and the brothers sat together, reminiscing past events, when some of them expressed a desire to have a more significant role in serving Rama. Bharatha and Shatrughna were the most eager. So, a list was drawn up of services that could be offered to Rama and assigned to those present. Hanuman was not present on that occasion, and when he arrived, the others announced, with a certain amount of glee, that he had no tasks left for serving Rama as everything was assigned to others.

Hanuman became was disappointed and pleaded with them, “Pray, go over the list of tasks again. Give me any service to the Lord that might have been missed, however small.” They were sure nothing had been overlooked, so the list was handed to Hanuman. To his utter joy, he noticed that one item had not been allotted– the customary rite of snapping one’s fingers in front of one’s mouth when one yawns. Of course, typically, the person who yawns usually does it himself, but in the case of Rama, the Emperor of Ayodhya, it would surely be beneath His dignity if He did it Himself. Hanuman pleaded for the duty of snapping his fingers whenever Rama yawned. The others agreed for they thought that there was little chance of Rama yawning. For Hanuman, however, it was a godsend. Since yawning was unpredictable, he would always have to be with Rama, his fingers ready, waiting for the golden chance to perform the rite that was his blessed duty!”

The hunger to serve the Lord is essential. My wife Hyma and I were blessed to be Swami’s guests at His ashram in Kodaikanal in 1994. Swami one day asked me, “Narendra, take me for a drive in the car.”

“Swami, I don’t have an international driver’s license!” was my response. Before I could realize my foolishness in thinking about a license when God was giving me an opportunity to serve, the chance was given to some other lucky soul. Later, my wife chided me, saying, “You always use your head. Use your heart.” This was good advice. No wonder Swami says, ‘WIFE’ stands for ‘Wisdom Invited For Ever!’

A few days later, we joined Swami on a picnic. Seeing a woman carrying a load of firewood, Swami asked me for 100 Rupees to give her. Swami added, “My robe has no pockets and no money.” I jumped at the opportunity and quickly gave the money which He gave to the lady. Once we returned to Sai Shruti, His residence, Swami called me and gave me 500 Rupees! I pleaded with Him that everything belonged to Him and protested that He should not give me the money. I refused to take the money, but after a few minutes of back and forth, Swami said, “If you do not accept it, I will not talk to you.” Not ready for the harsh punishment, I immediately accepted the money!

In the final analysis, the lesson is that we never ‘work’ or ‘sacrifice’ for God. Whatever we do for Him is an ‘investment’ that gives us manifold returns! As shown above, my offering of 100 rupees was returned as 500 rupees, multiplied five times in a few hours! Swami says, “If you walk one step toward me, I will take a hundred steps toward you; if you shed one tear for me, I will wipe hundreds of tears from you.”

A devotee who lived in Madanapalle got the blessed opportunity to host Swami and offer Him lunch once when He was on His way to Madras from Puttaparthi. For the rest of her life, whenever she visited Puttaparthi, Swami ensured she was His guest and received food at His expense!

We need only to have a sincere and intense desire to serve.

Ways to Serve are Many

The primary way of Service, enthusiastically carried out by Sai devotees around the world is providing food for the hungry, clothes for the needy, and medical relief for the suffering. By Swami’s blessings and grace, the SSSIO has been serving regularly in 114 countries, and the recipient communities have welcomed the help and gratefully appreciated the loving attitude of SSSIO members who serve. For instance, after the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the SSSIO was one of the first to arrive and continued serving the afflicted nearly a decade after the event. In recognition, the Haiti government commended the SSSIO as the best Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that offered ‘sustainable’ service.

The second way to serve is simply saying a kind word or sharing a smile. I once had a patient who had an overactive thyroid despite the best medical treatment. When I probed further, I discovered she was highly stressed hearing her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I counseled her to be strong, concluding with Swami’s advice, “Don’t worry; be happy.” That was the last I saw her for a while. When she visited me after a few months, she gifted me a hat with the words “Don’t worry; be happy” embroidered on it. She said that those words had given great courage and strength to her mother, who embroidered them on many hats to distribute in the cancer hospice and other places where people needed courage and encouragement. She passed away peacefully, and the daughter came to offer me a hat in gratitude. This touching story illustrates that a small act of kindness goes a long way. Service is more about the attitude rather than the act.

The third way we can serve is by praying. When we chant, “Samastha Loka Sukhino Bhavantu” (may all the worlds be happy), it is a service to the whole world. The power of prayer often goes unrecognized, but cyclones and typhoons have sometimes been averted by sincere prayers and singing bhajans. So, singing bhajans is a service. (Sometimes, not singing is also the best service if the singer cannot sing in melody and rhythm!)

The fourth way to serve is by bringing people to the Godward path. Swami Himself suggested this as a service activity to an exemplary devotee, Mr. Gopal Rao, the former Chairman of Andhra Bank in India. Swami felicitated him in Sai Kulwant Hall with a grand celebration on his 100th birthday. Swami would always advise him to serve. So, even after crossing 90, he would go to the canteen and serve water to the devotees. Finally, a stage came when he could not do that due to physical limitations. Then, he asked Swami how he could serve Him? Swami advised Mr. Gopal Rao to talk about God and share with everyone his experiences with Swami, which would be a way of service.

The fifth and probably the best way to serve is to inquire and know who we are! In the 1990s, Swami delivered a series of discourses on the life and teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba. Since these discourses were only in Telugu, I was eager to translate them into English for the benefit of all devotees.
I offered this service to Swami. He advised me that a far better service would be for me to explore ‘Who am I?’ I pleaded that such an inquiry was very difficult. Swami said, “No! A cave might be in darkness for thousands of years, but when you strike a match, the darkness of millennia is banished in a moment. When there is sincerity and divine grace, you will get enlightenment in a flash.” Ultimately, all service is to know Our reality.

The Feeling That Counts

Swami always emphasizes quality over quantity. On one occasion, He asked me how the Arcadia Sai Center was progressing. I replied that it had grown from 5-10 members to about 50. He seemed a bit disappointed and said, “Is that all you have learned from Me?” Then He remarked, “A handful of good people is enough.”

‘Quality’ refers to the heart and feelings of the devotee. Lord Rama lovingly accepted and relished the half-eaten berries served by Shabari, His ardent devotee. With the same eagerness, Lord Krishna accepted the banana peels that Vidura offered Him while refusing the royal hospitality of Duryodhana. When Swami was constructing the Super Specialty Hospital in Puttaparthi, He was overjoyed with the 100 Rupees a student offered Him. This student saved his pocket money by washing his clothes himself and offered the savings to Swami. Swami valued his contribution over many donations of thousands of dollars. Even Lord Jesus valued the heartfelt offering of a penny from an old lady over all the money from the temple’s coffers.

Types of Service

There are three types of service–Thamasic, Rajasic and Satwic.

Thamasic service is when we offer what we find unfit for ourselves to others. An example is giving away old clothes or left over food rather than throwing them away.

Rajasic service is when there is pride and ego in doing the service, since it is done for name and fame, pomp, and exhibition.

Swami gives a humorous example of Rajasic service in His discourse given in July 1999. Swami narrates, “At a place where I was about to give a discourse, one person switched off the fan. I asked him, ‘Why did you switch off the fan? We need it now. It is very hot here.’ The person replied that he was the one who donated the fan, and his name was written on the fan blades; unless the fan was switched off, his name would not be readable.

Satwic service is described in the Taittriya Upanishad (ancient scripture) as:

sraddhaya deyam | asraddhaya’deyam | sriya deyam | hriya deyam | bhiya deyam | samvida deyam |

(Give with faith and reverence. Do not give without faith. Give as much as you can according to your wealth. Give with modesty. Give with respect. Give with empathy.)

The anecdote of Mr. James Johnson from Cleveland, USA, comes to mind. He led a simple life and struggled to make ends meet. He lived on Social Security (pension), and a few devotees helped him with essentials. When the Super Specialty Hospital was inaugurated during Swami’s Birthday, Swami got the names of large donors announced. Much to the amazement of everyone who knew Mr. James Johnson, his name was announced as he had contributed $100,000! He felt very embarrassed when people asked him about it because he wanted to remain anonymous. Then he revealed that he was caring for his sister, who was dying of cancer. She left him an estate of $100,000 when she passed away. He felt, “This money entirely belongs to God. Since God is building a hospital to serve the needy, it should go there.” What a beautiful thought and a genuine magnanimous gesture!

Satwic service is charity where the left hand does not know what the right hand does.

Obstacles to Service

The two biggest obstacles to service are Kartrutva (doership) and Bhoktrutva (enjoyership). The feeling that “I am the doer” and “I want to enjoy the fruits of my service” verily negates the spiritual benefit of the service rendered.

On one occasion, a devotee from the USA with his team presented a drama in Swami’s presence in the Poornachandra Auditorium. The next day, Swami came to him and said,

“The drama was done very well.”

“It is all Your grace, Swami!”

“Who is the director?”

“You are the Director and Producer, Swami!”

“Then, what about you?”

“Swami, I am your assistant…”

“Assistant? I don’t need any assistants,” Swami retorted smilingly.

Even when we try our best to be humble, the ego raises its ugly hood! We should always feel that we are mere instruments in His hands.

Benefits of Service

There is a beautiful story about service narrated by Swami. Abou Ben Adhem, a pious individual, always served his fellow beings, though he never formally worshipped God. One day, he accosted an angel preparing a ‘list of people who loved God.’ His name wasn’t on the list. But the next day, the same angel was preparing a ‘list of people whom God loved,’ and to his utter surprise, his name was on top of the list!

Service endears us to God. It purifies our tendencies. It also helps us see the Oneness that pervades everything. Thus, it grants us all three–Unity, Purity, and Divinity.

Swami introduced an important concept that through rendering service, one benefits the recipient, whether one believes service to be a sadhana or not, because one relieves people’s distress by providing food, water, shelter, education, and medical care. But Swami emphasized the higher benefit of service by introducing two words–Swayamsevak and Narayana Seva.

Swayamsevak is the term used to refer to a volunteer, but in Sanskrit, it literally means ‘one who helps oneself’! Swami clarified that the ultimate beneficiary of service is the one who serves! It is vital to have the feeling that we are not serving others but ourselves. It is for our own benefit and transformation. Service helps minimize and eventually eliminate the ego, along with the vices of selfish desire, anger, greed, infatuation, pride, and jealousy.

Narayana Seva is the term used to refer to serving food to the needy, but, in Sanskrit, it literally means ‘service to Lord Narayana,’ that is service to God.! This attitude is essential to receive the spiritual benefit of service. The whole attitude should be that service is done by God, to God, through God, and the service activity is also Divine. So, the important lesson is the recognition of Oneness.

Service purifies the heart. It removes negative tendencies. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Swami said, “Purity is Enlightenment.” So, through service, we see God face to face. Service makes us experience oneness with all humanity, all living beings, and all creation–Advaitha Darshanam Jnanam (Wisdom is seeing Oneness in all).

May our lives always be dedicated to serving Swami and His creation until our last breath.

Jai Sairam